Construction of the long-stalled Thirty Meter Telescope will start near the summit of Mauna Kea Monday, Gov. David Ige announced Wednesday.
“We have followed a 10-year process to get to this point, and the day for construction to begin has arrived,” Ige declared.
At a news conference at the state Capitol, Ige and state officials announced that the road to the top of Hawaii’s tallest mountain will be closed starting Monday morning for a period of days as grading and other heavy equipment heads up to the construction site.
Officials also said there could be lane and other road closures associated with the movement of large equipment on Mauna Kea Access Road, as well as the closure of hunting areas in the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve.
State Attorney General Clare Connors said that while she hopes demonstrators behave within the parameters of the law, state and county law enforcement officers are ready to deal with any potential obstacles facing the work crews.
Ige said National Guard members will be deployed but only for certain support roles, including transportation of personnel and equipment, and helping with road closures. He added that they would be unarmed.
After the news conference, project foes expressed disappointment and frustration, and vowed to resist more construction on a mountain they view as sacred.
“It appears the state is willing to let people get hurt and even allow bloodshed to occur,” Mauna Kea Hui leader Kealoha Pisciotta said. “I say that not because we are going to do anything violent. We’re not the ones with the guns.”
In the governor’s lobby Wednesday afternoon were a handful of Native Hawaiian activists carrying signs of protest.
“They cannot block access for those of us who go up there. We have that right,” said Healani Sonoda-Pale of Ka Lahui Hawai‘i Political Action Committee. “Mauna Kea is our temple. If we want to go up to the mauna to pray, to be with our akua, we have that right to access.”
Earlier, Henry Yang, chairman of the TMT International Observatory Board of Governors, told reporters that he acknowledges those who disagree with the project and respects their views.
“We have learned much over the last 10-plus years on the unique importance of Mauna Kea to all, and we remain committed to being good stewards on the mountain and inclusive of the Hawaiian community,” he said.
Construction on the next-generation telescope stopped in 2015 after protesters were arrested for blocking work vehicles from traveling to the site. A second attempt to start construction a few months later ended with more arrests.
Late that year, the state Supreme Court halted the project on procedural issues. Following a contested case hearing replay, the high court in 2018 upheld the telescope’s construction permit.
The state last month issued a formal notice to proceed with building the telescope after TMT officials satisfied more than 40 conditions listed in their construction permit.
Construction on the northern plateau of Mauna Kea is expected to stretch at least a decade and cost more than $1.4 billion. State officials have said that five of the current 13 observatories on the summit will be decommissioned concurrently.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Ige and Connors said a device known as a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), also known as a sound cannon, would be deployed by public safety officers as a long-range public address system and not as a weapon.
“There’s a lot of misinformation about LRAD,” Ige said. The tool, he added, is standard equipment at police departments in every county.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii on Wednesday sent Ige and other state officials a letter demanding that they reassure the people of Hawaii that they will not deploy LRAD for any anti-protest or crowd control linked to the TMT or any other protest.
While the LRAD is marketed as a crowd-control device, it was created for the military as a sound weapon to inflict pain and has been abused by law enforcement in connection with a number of high-profile civilian protests, the ACLU said in its letter.
The ACLU said it was willing to go to court over the issue. A group of Native Hawaiian “protectors” in June formally asked state officials to renounce the use of the LRAD.
As for a lawsuit filed in Hawaii island Circuit Court Monday saying the TMT needed a security bond for the cost of the entire project, Connors said her office found the claim to be without merit and unlikely to affect construction.
On Monday, the access road will be closed at its intersection with Daniel K. Inouye Highway, also known as Saddle Road, at 7 a.m.
Connors said no specific area has been designated for protesters since the mountain will be open most days. She said that could change depending on circumstances.
The TMT’s Yang, the chancellor of the University of California at Santa Barbara, described the telescope as historic and said the project’s partners in Canada, Japan, China and India are committed to funding the construction over the next decade.
“We aim to build the TMT for the benefit of mankind and to understand the universe in which we all live,” he said. “As a new powerful optical telescope, TMT will enable astronomers to see further into our universe and reach back toward the beginning of time, facilitating unprecedented research.”